Ragnar Axelsson, better known as Rax, is an Icelandic photojournalist who has been photographing people and nature in the Arctic for over four decades. He has seen big changes in the environment and how global warming is affecting the Arctic countries. We met up with RAX to discuss these changes and the importance of documenting them.
I have been photographing the Arctic for 40 years. I began working as a photographer as a summer employee for Mogginn [Morgunblaðið, daily newspaper] when I was only 16 years old. My first introduction to Greenland was from above, I was learning to fly and was collecting flying hours. I found the natural environs stunning and the communities exceptional, and naturally I went over there to photograph. At the time, I was solely thinking about taking beautiful pictures. I was a young man with photographer role models, in whose footsteps I was eager to follow.
I absolutely love documenting my surroundings. Photographing people and hearing their stories. I thoroughly enjoy being among people – experiencing how they live – and the camera becomes a pen writing their stories, so to speak. There is a whole other viewpoint. When you are on site you get a different sense of what worries the people who live and breathe in the area. Initially, I started wandering around in the Arctic for a good photograph, which then changed into the need to tell a story and leave something valuable behind for future generations.
This has led me to concentrate on things that are changing and possibly even disappearing. The Arctic is one of the best examples of something vast that is really, thoroughly changing. I know a lot of good people who are knowledgeable scientists but have a completely different perspective from the actual inhabitants of the area, who know the land better than anyone else. They have described to me what is happening around them – with the sea, ice, etc. They see everything transforming and the hunter communities, which have always sparked my curiosity, are finding life extremely tough. Yet, somehow, they are never asked.
It is important to document these changes for the world and to open people’s eyes – after all there are 4 million people who live above the Arctic Circle. A century ago, the Arctic explorers came back from their expeditions with all their new knowledge and insights. This is important. We cannot just say “oops – here is a gap in history – we fell asleep at the wheel”.
My two friends and I operate a small publishing house. Over the next two years, we intend to finish a book on the subject. The intention is not to preach but rather just cast a light on the life in the Arctic, which will hopefully encourage those who want to preserve it to make small changes in their lifestyle. No-one is saying that everything has to grind to a halt. This is where the debate is stuck today, and it is counterproductive.
These images are the result of many years’ work and I have visited all 8 Arctic countries – I have walked on these pages, something that is completely different to reading a book or an article about the place. Whether on the tundra with reindeer herders or going to closed cities in Siberia, the Arctic is a truly amazing place.
The photograph still has an important part to play. Surely media has changed enormously but it is fruitless to moan about how much the world itself has changed. We must always keep an eye on the present. Once upon a time, photographers were super cool, whereas now a great number of people see them as little more than pizza delivery guys. I just happen to have a whole other opinion. Photographers see, experience and capture unique moments, often over time. I grew up in a rural area and have literally watched the glaciers melt. The realisation came early to me. When I got a camera, I soon began to wonder – what will this look like in 50 years or 100 years; I wonder still.
I only have one rule in lightroom and photoshop and all the gizmos photographers use – I will not go further than would be possible in a darkroom. I cannot stand pictures that look like chocolate box covers from another planet. These days tourists come and ask when the Nordic lights will be switched on – for the simple reason that they have only ever seen an overly-photoshopped image. Reality, however, can never be found in photoshop.
The photograph lives. It’s right there. Up on walls and in books. Photographers can change the world – we saw this in Vietnam and we still see it happen today as in the Syrian refugee crisis. A photograph can make a huge difference. How does this live and what story does this tell? We see what Instagram is like – all these people taking endless selfies.
This reminds me of what the late Matthías Jóhannesson always said: The photographer should mirror the present. Not just himself.